The Upside Of Loss: How My Mom’s Death Made Me A Better Person

Losing my mother when I was a teen helped me discover a drive and joy in myself that I never thought I had.

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Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Cultraro
I have about a billion memories of my mom, but some of my favourites are our mother-daughter shopping dates. Since I spent most of my childhood weekends freezing in the stands of an arena watching my two brothers play hockey, Mom always made sure we had our own special time. We’d leave our house in Thornhill early on a Saturday morning and drive to downtown Toronto, chatting and laughing while Shania Twain’s Come On Over album played. She’d patiently watch me try on outfit after outfit, whether it was semiformal dresses or back-to-school clothes, always giving her input, but also encouraging my independence, saying “it’s up to you.” We’d cap off the day with sushi (my choice), then browse through DVDs at Blockbuster for the perfect rom-com (almost always Julia Roberts, also my choice) to watch on the couch, while munching on popcorn and chocolate-covered almonds. That was my Mom: totally selfless and happy to go along with whatever agenda my brothers, my father and I came up with.
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When she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, Mom once again put our feelings before hers, downplaying its seriousness. Eventually the cancer spread, the chemo hit her harder, and she couldn’t hide it anymore: She was dying. The memory of my mom sitting my brothers and me down and telling us she didn’t have much time left still turns my stomach. There is no way to describe the feeling of watching your confused 10-year-old brother cry “but I need a mom.” She died six years later, when I was 19. I’m sure you feel sorry for me — heck, writing this and reliving these moments makes me feel sorry for me. But here’s the thing: Losing my mom as a teen helped me discover a drive and joy in myself that I never thought I had. Grieving isn’t solely about pain and suffering, I’ve learned. Sometimes there’s an upside to loss.
The experts refer to this positive, even transformational, shift following a loss as post-traumatic growth. It’s the idea that trauma can be a catalyst for people to become stronger, happier, and lead overall better lives, that it can help clarify your values and identify the contributions you want to make to the world. Post-traumatic growth is a relatively new field of study in the psychology world, which has historically been more interested in people who aren’t doing well.
American psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun developed the theory in the mid-1990s. Among their many studies, they interviewed a group of widows. Though most of the women cried nightly, mourning the loss of their husbands, they also said the life-changing death of their spouses pushed them to realize their own resilience. “For post-traumatic growth to be possible, the event needs to rock people’s worlds enough so that some of the ways they understood themselves and their place in the world no longer fit,” explains Calhoun. Women, he adds, seem to report it more often than men, although experts aren’t sure why.
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Key to this is that growth is often experienced alongside grief — one does not eliminate the other. In Option B by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, she writes about the immense pain she endured after her husband’s sudden death of a coronary arrhythmia, saying she never imagined she’d be capable of overcoming this constant state of “not being able to breathe,” never mind finding meaning in her loss. But she also dedicates a whole chapter to the shifting perspective she noticed seeping into her life when she began journaling, embracing vulnerability and eventually “pouring her emotions” into that now-famous Facebook post.
I noticed this paradox in my own life. I cried. A lot. I had many “what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this?” breakdowns. And I still do. But the night after my mother passed away, as I sat in bed puffy-eyed and wired, I remember thinking I’d just experienced the absolute worst, that things could only get better. I promised myself then that I would (at least try) to live the rest of my life striving to make my mom proud, that I would make decisions (OK, most decisions) based on the foundation she created for me. Knowing that all she ever wanted was for her kids to be happy, I tried to embrace the freedom of thriving on my own, rather than seeing her loss as a burden (though this often takes some reminding).
Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Cultraro
Less than a year after my mom passed away, I went on student exchange to the U.K. and then travelled Europe for five months — something my mom said she wanted to do. Something perhaps I never thought I’d be brave enough to do. I’ve travelled every year since. Recently, I decided to go back to school for my master of arts in media production at Ryerson University — once again, something I never saw myself doing.
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For my master’s thesis, I explored how we navigate grief in modern Western culture, which allowed me to connect with other young people who lost parents but also emerged with a new sense of perspective. One of them is Katie Shim, whose mother died of colon cancer when she was in high school. Losing it all freed her to explore life on her own terms, she says. “It’s [allowed me] to seek my own female mentors,” she says. “It’s taught me to be more vigilant, how to be more compassionate and really sit with my emotions.” Shim recently followed her lifelong dream and moved to California, saying it was her mother’s death that empowered her to make the leap. Daniela Zirrizotti, who was 17 when her mother died of a stroke, also says that losing her mom put a “fire in her” to do things for her mother’s legacy. This is what post-traumatic growth researcher Dr. Joseph Kasper calls “co-destiny,” which involves working towards achieving things in your life that you think your deceased loved one would have achieved if they were still alive.

I’ve often questioned how I could be so content after the death of my mom. Am I insensitive? Am I burying my feelings? It doesn’t help when people have opinions on the correct way to go about missing someone.

Zirizotti admits that feeling motivated, or even grateful, after losing her mom often comes with guilt, which is quite familiar to me. I’ve often questioned how I could be so content after the death of my mom. Am I insensitive? Am I burying my feelings? It doesn’t help when people have opinions on the correct way to go about missing someone. I found myself reassuring others that I do have crying spells and trouble getting out of bed some mornings, just to fit their expectations of how I should be grieving. Dr. Anne Wagner, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma, says that this outlook can often hold us back. “That's where people tend to get stuck, where they can't embrace growth because they're feeling guilty for experiencing it," she says. “There are probably as many different ways to work through grief as there are people in the world.”
It’s been over five years since my mom died. In that time, I’ve felt sadness and anger, gratitude and motivation — and I try not to deny any of these feelings. I’m continuing to prosper in the midst of what I used to think was insurmountable. That in itself gives me some form of hope and relief. Living without my mom can be really shitty, but I think I deserve to find the silver lining in the shitty. I may no longer have her arms to run to when my quarter-life crisis is at its peak, my dating life is looking ugly, and I can’t find the perfect outfit for that job interview, but whenever a Julia Roberts rom-com pops on TV or I hear a Shania Twain song, mom never seems too far away.

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